Where every parent has gone before

My 34-year-old son Nick called me yesterday from his home in Orlando. “Hey buddy… what’s up!” I said juggling my phone between the side of my face and my shoulder while looking through paper work. He mumbled a half-hearted greeting back that let me know something was very wrong. I took the phone in my hand. “What’s the matter son?” His son Gavin had broken his arm while playing and as a result Nick’s parental confidence had eroded. “Dad, I just keep thinking about all the things you went through with Neil and me when we were kids. You were always calm and in control like “Captain Kirk.” I leaned back in my chair and enjoyed being “Captain Kirk” for about two seconds, but then I proceeded to tell him what it was really like for me as a young parent and how I had experienced the same feelings he was feeling. I had for many years raised my sons on my own… and there were many times when I did not feel or act like the model parent, much less a Starship Captain.

One such time was when I took my ten-year-old twin boys on a two-week trip out west to Yosemite and Yellowstone by myself. Despite the fact that all of us acted ten years old as we stood too close to 4,000 foot cliffs, scrambled on gigantic rocks, slid down waterfalls, posed next to irritated buffalos, ignored roped off areas and warning signs about bears or the “Danger of Death” due to (whatever) and drove down countless narrow winding roads, while video taping… we all survived. Not a scratch. And then, when we finally arrived home from the airport, late at night and exhausted, I put my sleepy sons safely in their bunk beds, tucked them in, turned to leave the bedroom, and “CRASH!” The bunk bed collapsed. As I sorted through the twisted rubble we were all laughing hysterically until I discovered that my son Neil’s leg had been split wide open by the bed frame. It was a hideous wound. I immediately grabbed the 8” gash and held it together and poor Neil immediately freaked out. On the way to the hospital, Neil continued to inisist that he was on deaths door while his brother Nick kept poking his head over the seat, excited about the opportunity to see inside his brother’s leg. “Neil. Neil. NEIL! Let me see it!!” As I drove way too fast, all the way to the Downtown Naples hospital, I swung my arm around blindly behind me in an attempt to keep Nick in the back seat, alternating between telling Nick to “SHUT UP!” and Neil to “Stop looking at it! Just hold the two sides together… you’ll be fine. And stop saying that… you’re not going to die!” “Nick… SIT DOWN!” Five hours and twenty-eight stitches later, we were “safely” back home again, together on the floor in sleeping bags. Although I didn’t panic during the ordeal, for years afterward I was haunted by guilt because all I could remember feeling was irritation and exhaustion.

But every parent/child incident offers new opportunities to experience the full range of human emotions. When my son Nick was five-years-old, he was sitting on my bed when suddenly; he leaned back and fell off. I was about 10 feet away at the time when he luckily landed on his shoulders and neck and then somersaulted back upright. I kneeled down next to him and he looked at me with a wide eyes. “Whoa!” I said to him chuckling. “That was quite the trick… Are you OK?” Then… he collapsed. As I scooped him up, his body was as limp as a rag doll. My parent’s brain immediately translated this into… HE’S DEAD!! So, instinct took over and I began to revive him with “Captain Kirk CPR” which apparently involves shaking your child violently and screaming his name in terror like a little girl. “NICKY!!!!!” Despite the whiplash and a thorough brain sloshing, he instantly woke up. Luckily, a friend of mine was there to drive us to the hospital; me clutching my now confused son tightly in my arms the entire way, babbling “It’s OK, It’s OK…!” At the hospital that night, our family doctor looked at my son very briefly and then turned his attention to the person who really needed acute medical care… me. Not my finest hour… or was it?

For my son, I summed it up like this… “I know that you feel that you’re going “Where no man has gone before,” but you’re going “Where every parent has gone before.” Everyone feels doubt and fear. But Captain Kirk never gives up. He just loves his crew and does the best that he can… so will you.”

Coconut Angel

In the 1960’s, Mildred Johnson lived with her family at the northern most part of Bonita Springs in a place called simply, “Coconut”. Their modest home, elevated on posts, was surrounded by other Johnson and Weeks family homes and as far as I could tell at 10 years old, little else but commercial fishing nets, mangroves and fiddler crabs. It wasn’t the easiest place to live… but “Coconut” was their home and they loved it.

The Johnson’s children were my friends and school mates growing up, but there was an especially strong, respectful connection and friendship between my parents and Mildred. I had no idea at the time how our family’s had become so close, but my dad and mom were always “Uncle Ben” and “Aunt D” to Grady, Bobby and Joseph Johnson and to my brother, sister and me, Mildred was always “Aunt Mildred”.

As the years passed, I began to realize that there was something very special about their family. Although the Johnson boys were rugged young men, they were amazingly genuine, kind, polite individuals. But then, they came about it honestly. Aunt Mildred was a strong and confident individual with a giant heart that cared for and watched over everyone. It wasn’t until my parents 50th wedding anniversary party that I discovered the source of our families bond and how Aunt Mildred’s courage and kindness had likely saved my fathers life. It was at the end of that party when, with tears in her eyes, she took my hand and with her beautiful southern accent said “Benny… Sit down here youngin’. I want to tell you ’bout your daddy.”

Years ago, Mildred went to school with my father and lived about four miles away. Mildred’s mother and my dad’s father had passed away within a year of each other, leaving Mildred to take care of her dad and all her younger brothers and sisters. My father’s brothers on the other hand, had all enlisted in the service, leaving him alone with his new step dads constant mistreatment and his mothers neglect. “That poor boy had nothin’!” Mildred cried. “Benny, they was so mean to him. It broke my heart! When his daddy died, his momma and step daddy gave him nothin’ but rags to wear.”

She looked around and leaned forward. “Why one time, they left your daddy out there on Pine Island all by himself for six weeks while they went out west.” She leaned back away from me and shook her head. “Son, that ain’t no way to do nobody! They left that poor boy with no money or food. He ’bout starved to death.” She wiped her eyes and sat up straight and proud. “So I told him to ride his horse on by our house in the evenings and I’d sneak him some table scraps out the window from our dinner.” She shook her head and laughed. “If my daddy had caught a boy hanging around outside my window, he would have whipped us both, but I couldn’t let him go hungry.” She looked over where my dad was sitting to be sure he wasn’t listening. She smiled and put one hand to the side of her mouth. “One evenin’ your daddy got into his step daddy’s whiskey. Well, he’d never had a drink before in his life and after a while he got to feelin’ real sorry for himself. So he got on that old horse of his and tried to ride it to my house in the middle of the night. I looked out my window and there he was just sittin’ there cryin’, covered in sand spurs and mud. He’d fell off his horse so many times that the horse had got tired and trotted off back home. I handed him some food out the window and then sat there while he cried and picked sand spurs off himself until I couldn’t stand it anymore. I told him “Benny, you stop that carryin’ on! You’re gonna be just fine! But you gotta learn to take care of yourself!” Aunt Mildred leaned to one side and looked past me; then took me by the arm and turned me gently towards my father. He had his arm around my mom and was surrounded by dozens of family members and friends. “Your daddy… he done alright.”

I travel to the end of Coconut Road quite often these days and despite how much it has changed my thoughts always return to Aunt Mildred and the Johnson family. Time and people pass on, places may change, but the strong connections born of simple innocent friendships and the compassion, kindness and encouragement of extraordinary people are with us, always.